Civil Society Cultural Heritage Intangible Heritage

Ode to Joy Challenge #ode2joy

Plácido Domingo challenges all Europeans to create an Ode to Joy!

On 31 January 2018 opera singer and conductor Plácido Domingo, the President of European heritage organisation Europa Nostra, has challenged all Europeans to record their version of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy to celebrate the European Year of Cultural Heritage.

He invited everybody to record – at a heritage site of their choice – the famous European anthem in a wide range of genres and styles, from classical to fado or rap. All these performances will then be shared (and some live-streamed) with the world on social media on 9 May 2017 – Europe Day. And if you cannot sing or play an instrument, the famous singer added, you should just use our imagination. Anything is possible.

The origins of the words and music

Beethoven’s famous melody is a part of his 9th sympony and is best known as the European Anthem, but where did it all start? We have to go back to the 18th century and to German poet Friedrich Schiller (1759 – 1805). He wrote the poem Ode to Joy (An die Freude) in 1785 at age 26.

Friedrich Schiller

The young artist had gone through a difficult period. He had spent a few weeks in jail, was unhappy about his work as a doctor and had had an affair with a married woman. Now he found himself in Leipzig, poor but surrounded by friends. He wanted to celebrate life and the fraternity and unity of all mankind. The most famous words from the poem he added during a revision in 1803:

Deine Zauber binden wieder
Was die Mode streng geteilt;
Alle Menschen werden Brüder,
Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.”

Friedrich, or Fritz as he was commonly known, was a man who forged his own destiny. The historian and poet had a strong social compass and died young at age 45. Like his friend Goethe he wanted to make society more just and inclusive. He believed in the powers of joy and art as engines of life. He strongly believed in education. People had to learn from their past because Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens, against stupidity even the Gods fight in vain.

Ode to Joy manuscript

Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827) was not known for his joyous character but still felt inspired by Schiller’s happy poem and included a choral movement in his symphony No. 9 in D minor. By then he had completely lost his sense of hearing. It was the first choral symphony ever and it would be Beethoven’s last, finished in 1824. He also died relatively young, at age 56. So in a real sense we celebrate Europe with a song created by a struggling artist and a disabled man who struggled with his health. There may be a lesson in that somewhere.

Beethoven was not so sure about using words and was even contemplating to take them out. Luckily he did not. Interestingly, the official anthem of the EU (arranged by Herbert von Karajan) does not use Schiller’s inspiring words, just the universal language of music.

Record cover of Herbert von Karajan’ Symphony nr.9

With or without the words, the music has inspired millions over the years. The 9th is one of the most performed pieces of classical music and its Ode to Joy can be heard in thousands of versions, from the Beatles’ film Help and Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange to the Muppets and as theme tune of UEFA and FIFA. Many have been enthused by it. It was even played at Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the 2017 elections.

The original manuscript of the Ode to Joy music lies in the Berlin State Library, and is part of the United Nations Memory of the World Programme Heritage list. You can find more information on


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